“Just Say Yes: a marijuana memoir”
by John F. McMullen
with my July 5th radio interview with author and Westchester
resident Catherine Hiller (s3.amazonaws.com/btr.shows/show/7/743/show_7743719.mp3),
author of seven adult works and two children’s books, I read four of the adult
· “An Old
Friend From High School” – her first novel (1978) deals with a heterosexual married woman dealing with a strong
attraction to a girlfriend from high school.
Sensual Tales” -- A collection of erotic short stories.
Adventures of Sid Sawyer” – A retelling of the Tom Sawyer story from
the vantage point of his younger and highly intelligent brother, Sid.
Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir” – her only non-fiction work to date (and the subject of this review), this
recently published book (April of this
year) is bold, brave, and well written.
books received praise from such notables as John Updike and Phillip Lopate and
I was extremely impressed with the breath of her work, as well as the quality.
I personally find short story writing to be the most difficult form of writing
(my published writing includes a
non-fiction book, poetry, a novella, and newspaper and magazines pieces – but
not short stories). With short stories, the writer must develop
characterization, set a stage, develop a plot, and tell a story all in a
writing style strong enough to hold the reader’s attention. This is something that
a novelist may take from 150 pages to 500 pages (I just read Greg Iles’ “Natchez Burning” – and he held my
interest for 862 pages; an incredible accomplishment). A short story writer
must do it all in a few short pages. Some of the most well known short story
writers such as “O’Henry” (William
Sidney Porter) and J. D.
Salinger were able to build characters and locations that were known to
readers and moved across stories, making it somewhat easier for the writer to
just “tell the tale.” In Skin’s case,
every story deals with unique characters and situations, requiring Hiller to be
at “the top of her game” for each --
and she is.
The uniqueness of
the stories is also reflected in the three other books mentioned above. The
settings, background of the characters, language, sexual tension, and location
could not be more different between An Old Friend From High School and The
Adventures of Sid Sawyer (2013). Yet,
both, in my judgement, work very well and are worth the attention of readers.
Just Say Yes is
brave for a number of reasons. Hiller lays bare her story of two marriages, her
disappointment that her critically acclaimed writing has not brought the
consumer success for which she hoped, and, of course, the details of her over
50 years of steady marijuana use. It is bold because she steps forward and,
fairly brazenly, takes on what she sees as the nonsensical rules against
marijuana use, at some risk to herself.
She does not,
however, try to force marijuana use on the reader – she only wants those who
wish to use it to be as free as those who wish to use alcohol – the use of
which, she points out, is far more dangerous to most people.
Hiller’s use of
marijuana did not prevent her from completing a PhD from Brown University in
English, completing the books mentioned as well as short stories published in
various magazines, raising three sons (she
did not smoke during pregnancies), making a living for years as a seller of
advertising in medical journals, and maintaining an active editing service for
She presents her
story in an interesting fashion, moving from the present backward in time to
the age of 17, when she first smoked “pot.” Once I became used to the
juxtaposition in time, I found the story telling both innovative and effective.
Early in the book,
she details how the drug’s use affects her writing process – she finds it
useful “for inspiration and writing.
After half a joint, I feel a tingling in my elbows and a warm general
confidence. Happiness suffuses my brain, and I become more playful and
inventive. It’s the perfect time to plan a project, because ideas come more
quickly. It’s also a good time to actually write, because, I usually feel so
good I don’t notice the demons of doubt. Being high eases me into writing;
after a while, I’m no longer stoned, but the writing momentum continues. I’m in
“I also like being high for the
final read-through, of either my own fiction or pieces that I edit for others.
I honestly feel I owe it to my clients to do the final reading after smoking, for
then I often see subtle infelicities of meaning or rhythm that I’ve missed
before, and I correct them on the spot. I do not usually check again when I’m
straight, as I’m confident about my fine-tuning decisions when stoned. I give
my clients a perk they know nothing about: a high level of attention.”
explains early about some of the other ways that marijuana benefits her – “Of course, I don’t smoke just for writing
and editing. Basically, weed is a general pleasure drug for me, a mild,
reliable way to get happy, Most things I enjoy I enjoy even more when I’m high,
especially if they don’t require energy. So relaxing outdoors is especially
good for me after smoking, I like being baked when I lie on the beach, being
stoned when I stroll in a drizzle and being high when I walk in the sun upon new
Kayaking at sunset is reliably
wonderful, but marijuana brings it to aesthetic bliss. I paddle mainly in the
calm harbor near my house, slowly at the end of the day. Sometimes other
boaters ask, ‘Are you as happy as you look?’ and I always nod yes. Paddling
like this is more meditation than sport. When people ask if kayaking is
difficult, I sometimes say ‘The hardest part is lighting the joint in the
For all the
positives Hiller finds from marijuana use, she doesn’t sugar coat downsides of
its use, devoting a whole chapter to them. Some of the ones she points out
makes me sleepy and lethargic, especially two hours after smoking.”
also takes its toll upon ones personal charms. It makes the eyes red, and it
may cause wrinkles.”
famously makes one hungry and makes great food taste even better. This is
advantageous if one is too thin or in chemotherapy, but for the rest of us …
not so much.”
pretty clear from both scientific studies and personal experience that pot
impairs short term memory and learning.”
examines an issue that plagues many about a variety of “pleasures” (alcohol, gambling, Internet use, etc.) –
addiction. She writes “If I continue
smoking while acknowledging that pot saps my energy and makes my eyes red and
my breath bad and impairs short term memory – if I go on smoking every day
despite these things, perhaps it’s not a habit but an addiction.” She then
directs the reader to a government page on addiction – www.easyread.drugabuse.gov -- and although she answers “yes”
to a number of questions, explains why she does not feel she is addicted,
writing that Narcotics Anonymous
frames the question of addiction in the following context -- “Very
simply, an addict is a person whose life is controlled by drugs,” and then
responding to the definition – “I always
have grass on hand and I use it regularly, but my life is not controlled by
pot. I have food on hand and I eat three times a day, but my life is not
controlled by food.”
Elsewhere in the
chapter, she asks the question – “Am I in
denial myself?” The reader may or may not form a judgment on this question
from reading this chapter.
points out two other drawbacks to the use of pot – the cost and the fact that
it is illegal in New York State. Her costs run about a hundred dollars ($100) a month and, while she’s not
overly concerned about the illegality, she admits that it causes a little
paranoia – “In New York State, possession
of less than an ounce of pot results in just a $100 fine, but the penalty for
smoking in public can be three months in jail. What if that person across the
alley in the cook’s apron is really a cop?” It should be noted that she
does not say what town or city that she lives in within Westchester so as not
to alert the local law enforcement (although,
that by writing about “the calm harbor near my house”, we know that she is on
one of the two Westchester coasts).
Just Say Yes is a
very good and quick read (it’s only 178
pages). Hiller tells her story without attempting to inflict her beliefs or
life style on the reader. She does make a strong case for decriminalization but
I admit that, in my case, she may be “just
preaching to the choir.” Although I grew up in the “pre-pot age” (it became popular with the younger brothers
of my friends) and have never been a user, I have long believed that the
criminal penalties for both marijuana use and prostitution should be lifted and
both should come under health regulation and be subject to taxation.
Unfortunately, statements like this usually bring the rejoinder that I’m
advocating the use of pot and going to prostitutes. The fact is that I’m doing neither
– I just want to get crime and health concerns out of the picture, increase tax
revenues, and let others do as they wish.
initially read the book due to my impending radio interview of Hiller, I am
glad that I did and know that I would have enjoyed it had I read it simply
because I saw it in my local Barnes and Noble. The author is not heavy-handed
in explaining her case for using marijuana and she writes well (as in shown in the breadth of her other
writing). The book should not be dismissed solely as a puff piece for pot
use and I recommend it to smokers and non-smokers alike.
© 2015 John F.